It was not that home, for me, was an unhappy place. But in our home, joy had an ephemeral quality to it. It was like trying to catch a glimmer of sunshine that slips in through a crack and dances around the room but never quite settles. We were novices at capturing joy, never being able to hold on to it for very long.
These lines, set in the first few pages of Maria Chaudhuri's memoir, Beloved Strangers, perfectly capture the essence of her story. Beloved Strangers is Chaudhuri's debut work, a story of growing up, of family and relationships, of moving away to another country, and of trying to reconcile with the homeland on returning.
Set in Dhaka, Bangladesh, New England and New York, it is a chronicle of her life and her attempt to understand and fit into the cultural spaces around her. And when she cannot fit in, she dreams of escape, from the people, the places and everything she loves — so much so that everything she does, every decision she takes becomes an escape from something else.
Maria's family is like any other seemingly content middle-class Bangladeshi household but Maria, right from her childhood, is witness to her parents' dissatisfactions and unfulfilled dreams. Her mother fantasises about being a young, successful singing sensation and locks herself in a room to practice her music, as if to keep the rest of the world away from it. Her father, in his "incapacity to adapt to the world", immerses himself in his work and his faith. It is as if her parents are looking for an escape as well.
Maria tries to comprehend her father's unshakable faith, but her attempts to know god, the questions she asks in order to understand him are frowned upon. Her Arabic tutor's refusal to explain the meanings of the verses in the holy book — his growled "no questions, just have faith" — makes her father's god more to be feared and appeased than to be understood. It teaches her that curiosity is considered a sin.
Shame — and guilt — are the underlying themes of Maria's story, something she discovers early in her childhood, and which come to govern much of her adult life as much as the need to escape. Shame, she realises, is all around her, almost as if it is the reason behind everything. She carries the guilt of her shame everywhere. She is always "praying for forgiveness without even knowing why she needed to be forgiven".
Beloved Strangers is written as a series of seemingly unconnected vignettes that go back and forth across her timeline, as if she is narrating random memories from her life as she remembers them. But each recollection, like a mosaic, forms part of the bigger picture that is her life. It sheds light on the people in her story, and her effort to understand her life. The back and forth narration speaks of the chaos inside the person.
Through the universal quest for that elusive happiness, Maria's story transcends the bounds of gender, culture and race. And yet it is quite specifically the story of a woman living in changing times and straddling cultures.
Despite the drifting narrative of a debut novel, one sees the potential in Maria Chaudhuri, and hopes to read more of her work in the future.